Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Giving Trump Credit on North Korea

Previously, on this blog, I’ve written critically of US President Donald Trump’s approach to the ongoing North Korean crisis. In short, I’ve believed Trump’s bellicose statements and tweets were the wrong track to use against a weak and insecure Kim regime. Threats of force play into the longstanding narrative that the US seeks to overthrow Kim and has imperial ambitions on the Korean Peninsula, which only reinforces Kim’s desire to advance the nation’s nuclear program and makes that program ever more popular among north Korean citizens. And more generally, history has shown that olive branches, of various shapes and sizes, have been more effective in getting North Korean to the negotiating table. While getting the North Koreans to the table isn’t an final end goal, it’s one small goal along a line of many different goals, leading, I would hope, to a negotiated deal of some sort between the US and North Korea (and possibly also South Korea and China).  

The latest news, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now, is that Kim has made an offer—via South Korea—to meet Trump later this year. Whether this is the product of American actions (sanctions, military muscle in the area) and statements, diplomatic moves by South Korea, dumb luck, or all of the above, it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that Trump is fully on board with the diplomatic track on North Korea.

Yes, it’s true that members of his administration have done quite a bit of behind the scenes diplomatic legwork over the last year. Most notably, Rex Tillerson, among others, has spent time strengthening the US-South Korea-Japan coalition, in the hopes that a united front can deter Kim from further provocative moves, get him to back down, and go the negotiating route. The problem is that Trump has sent mixed messages in response to Tillerson’s efforts, saying, on the one hand, that he doesn’t want war, but, at the same time, expressing his belief that Tillerson was wasting his time.  

For now, Trump deserves some kudos. In a chaotic and very unconventional way, he’s gotten Kim to reach out to the US. This is a very good development. It seems like it should be self-evident, though in this political climate I fear it’s not: Lowering tensions, reducing the likelihood for war on the Korean peninsula, is good for the US and North Korea, sure, but also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, as well as Asia more broadly and the world. And while Trump critics, those on the left and right, worry that the run-up to the meeting and the meeting itself offer ample opportunities for Trump to inflame relations with North Korea, let’s be fair. The fact that Ttrump got Kim to make the first move is a clear win for Trump and the US. 

Moreover, Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom that “too much prep” needs to be done, on both sides, before a Trump-Kim meeting. The prep argument has always seemed like an excuse to prevent the US from engaging in high-level talks. I'm not dismissing some pre-diplomacy legwork as necessary, to be clear. But I do believe that most of those who espouse this logic are making it not because of comitted stance in favor of preparedness but because they have an overly negative, harsh view of Trump (his personality, intellect, etc.), which may or may not have any basis in reality. Besides, talking just to talk—the fear among some, that the talks will therefore be aimless and thus pointless—isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can help establish an improved personal relationship between Kim and Trump and pave the way for better broader North Korea-US ties. Think of it this way: by May 2018, Kim may have met the US president more times he's met with Xi Jinping, China's president. 

Furthermore, Trump, it appears, has discarded the notion—or at a minimum, he’s not constrained by the notion—that meeting with Kim accords him way too much prestige. That’s mostly hooey. Yes, a summit with Trump will probably enhance kim’s standing domestically, inside of North Korea, as North Korean citizens see him together, on the same stage, with the president of the US. But internationally? Probably not. Which state(s) will change it’s views of Kim and North Korea after one lone set of face-to-face talks with Trump? Consider this: Did the Iran nuclear deal radically alter how the international community sees Iran? Nope. The world, by and large, still sees Iran as a human rights violator and regional instigator of violence and instability—and that’s despite the almost unanimous recognition that Iran is complying with the deal. I’d expect something similar with respect to North Korea.

But here’s the other thing to think about: Should Trump care that a meeting with Kim might enhance Kim’s standing and prestige? Somewhat, but that shouldn’t be a dominant focus, right? But that’s not what the critics are suggesting, at least implicitly. That’s preposterous, though. It’s the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face syndrome, actually. It’s far more important to make diplomatic progress with North Korea than be concerned about how Kim is viewed and treated domestically and globally. And honestly, if Kim does elevate his image in the world, it’s not from one singular meeting with the US, but from consistently complying with the rules and norms and laws of the extant international system. And that should be his—and any dictator’s—reward for coming out of the cold and meaningfully engaging with the world.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Kim and Trump

Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman watching a basketball game in Pyongyang in January 2014
Photo: AFP/Getty

The news that President Trump has suddenly decided to meet Kim Jong Un caught everyone by surprise. At this point, aside from conservatives who support Trump, I haven't seen anyone who really thinks that this is a good idea.

Widely respected North Korean expert, Victor Cha, for instance, wrote in The New York Times that "But that is Mr. Trump’s world — black is white, front is back, chaos is good," essentially warning that this is an amateur hour in the White House. Both Tom Nichols and General Michael Hayden essentially think that Trump is walking to North Korean trap that had ensnared every single leader before him.

Are they right? At this point, though, I am keeping my powder dry.  We need to see what's on the table first, before freaking out that the US is setting loose a bull in a China store, with a disastrous results.

I think it is useful to think about what brought North Korea to the negotiating table. Three points immediately come to mind.

1. The sanctions worked, Ki Jong Un is afraid of Trump, and he is desperate for a deal.

I agree that the sanctions worked, and most likely North Korea is feeling the pinch. Taking a page from the Kim’s old playbook, Pyongyang has decided to offer some "concessions" to the US, before pulling out again, leaving everyone else holding the bag.

Still, the question is, of course, whether Trump is that stupid and whether North Koreans think Trump is that dumb to fall for such a gambit? Granted, Kim might well believe that he can manipulate Trump’s ego. Plus, keep in mind that the North is using a conciliatory partner in South Korea as an intermediary here, which might indicate that Kim thinks he’s in the driver’s seat.  

On the other side, we have to factor in Trump’s weak domestic political position as well as his narcissistic personality, two things that could be driving Trump to accept Kim’s offer. With this in mind, then, Victor Cha's fear might not be unfounded, that Trump might be tempted to show the world that he is the best negotiator by pulling what Cha termed as a "big bang" approach, basically end up giving North Korea everything it wants while getting nothing in return.

But until I see the end result of the deal, I am holding my fire, as I don't think Trump is that dumb. Chaotic and impulsive, yes, but not so stupid as to not get some concrete concessions from Kim. Plus, I do think that he will also consider Japan's interests, since I think based on his visit to Japan last year, it seems to me that both him and Abe managed to get along very well.

2. Kim Jong Un is pulling a "Nixon comes to China."

Kim Jong Un doesn’t trust China, as I wrote in my Global Asia article, and think that the United States might be a better partner in the end. Kim just might believe that too. This is evident in the fact that Kim has not visited China once -- and the fact that Trump will be the first leader that he will ever directly meet means a lot in this face-oriented society of China, Japan and Korea. But whether this means Kim is prepared to denuclearize is doubtful. Kim has built his legitimacy around the issue of nuclear weapon. And he also must aware of the fate of Gaddafi, who gave up his nukes and the United States helped to topple him in the end. Moreover, while it is possible that Trump may stick to his word on any potential deal with North Korea, there is no guarantee that Trump's successor may behave the same. Kim is acutely aware of this.

3. Kim is in a position of strength.

Perhaps flush with confidence, given the success of North Korea’s missile program over the last year, he invited Trump to talks, believing he’s now in a position of strength. In short, he’s ready to bargain now that he has the ultimate chips, nuclear weapons that can potentially hit much of the United States. While it is tempting to think about that, I doubt that Kim is that self-centered, inviting Trump just so he could gloat or give him a fait accompli. That would only limit his options both in the short- and long-term.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Xi Jinping's Power Grab

Photo: EPA

CWCP's Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman and Dr. Brad Nelson offer their reactions to the the news that China plans to eliminate presidential term-limits.

Yohanes Sulaiman: This is an interesting development in China, showing how much Xi Jinping has managed to completely consolidate power in his hands. Even though previous leaders tried to bypass the rule and rule behind the shadow (e.g. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin), they were only successful to a limited degree. And once they transitioned out of power, their successors quickly consolidated their own rule, which limited their continuing grip on political power in China. Here, Xi managed to break the rule that was imposed after the death of Mao and the fall of Gang of Four, to prevent another Mao from emerging.

What are the implications? In the short term, none whatsoever. China will continue on its present political path. It will keep increasing its power, pushing the envelope, etc., though I don't see Beijing attempting to change the status quo. Why? Because (1) China is not ready yet to do so, and (2) China still has a host of domestic problems, notably economic problems, such as overproduction/overcapacity, internal fears of an economic slowdown, and economic malfeasance (e.g. state's seizure of Anbang Insurance). The fact that money is moving out of China so rapidly that the state has to crack down on it should give one pause. I am not saying that China will collapse anytime soon - far from it. But this just shows how unstable China's condition is currently is, making it difficult for them to challenge the status quo.

In the long run, though, this may be a problem. Long-term rulers pursue policies that will allow them to stay in power, but at the expense of the nation. Decision-making processes become atrophied, as institutions lack new blood that could give fresh insight and perspectives. In such situations, leaders often pick bad policies, and that causes long-term problems.

Brad Nelson: My first reaction is to think about how this news impacts US-China relations. China is, in my view, a regional revisionist power. It's already doing things to upset the regional status quo. I've made precisely that point here. The "cabbage" and "salami slicing" efforts in the South China Seas and China's OBOR are but two prominent initiatives of a host of examples we can point to as evidence of China currently creating a new regional order, limiting America's role and movement in Asia, and binding other regional states to China's nascent "Asia for Asians" order. That will now certainly continue.

What seems most assured is that China, for the foreseeable future, will continue to press its political, economic, and security interests outward. Xi's vision of a globally powerful and respected China necessarily requires the Red Panda to flex its muscles. As a result, then, this picture of an assertive, possibly more hostile, China isn't just a temporary blip or something that can be wished away; it's a fact of international politics, one that has ripple effects worldwide. One of which is that there's an increasing likelihood of the US and China butting heads in the future on a host of issues, in Asia and worldwide. While I'm not so sure I buy into Graham Allison's work on the Thucydides Trap, especially as it relates to Sino-US relations in the 21st century, Xi's long-term presence in China does further intensify the dynamics that underpin a potential costly, destructive power transition in Asia. Given all of the above, this story does have the potential to be the defining event in world affairs in 2018, and even beyond.

BN: I'm curious about your take on the weakness/strength of Xi politically. As you know, that's a big debate that's emerged--whether scrapping the term-limits means Xi is riding high and confident or feeling vulnerable and actually weak. Your thoughts?

YS: One thing for sure is that Xi's power in the Communist Party is unprecedented in post-Mao China. As powerful as Deng was back in the 1980s, he still had to deal with divergent factions, ranging from the moderates (e.g. Zhao Ziyang) to conservatives (e.g. Li Peng). Similarly, Jiang Zemin was hemmed by different factions. Hu Jintao ruled by consensus. Xi Jinping has been more successful in reducing the domestic constraints on his rule, namely through his anti-corruption drive. At this point, there is no strong political bloc left in China that can effectively challenge Xi Jinping.

There are several ways to see why the Xi-controlled Communist Party decided to scrap the term-limit.

1. The official explanation says there is really a genuine internal fear of the United States, and so to further cement China's rise to power, Beijing needs a steady hand on the helm. I don't buy it, however. Changes in the leadership ranks may cause some distraction and turmoil in the short-term, but that is offset by the long-term benefits. Promotions and turnover in power allows for fresh ways of thinking (which reduces ideological and policy rigidity and staleness) and generational change, which always quells discontent within any type of government -- including an authoritarian one.

2. Xi is so powerful that he can dictate whatever he wants. That is probably the most common explanation, though it oversimplifies the situation. We have to look at China's current economic condition, which while very impressive from the outside, is marked with mounting debt and economic mismanagement, not to mention a very high overcapacity problem. In fact, one may argue that China's "Belt and Road Initiative" is actually more of an attempt of China to export its overcapacity elsewhere (dumping). Frankly, should the economy collapse, whether sooner or later, whomever holds power at that time will be blamed for this, and this factor might be what drove Xi's policy.

What does that mean? We could see that this term-limits debate is his warning, that basically he is going nowhere, so everyone better stick with the economic reforms. Or perhaps Xi simply wants to remain in power even as the economy slows down. At this point, it is really difficult to find any reliable analysis on the current power struggle in the Party. While I tend to stick with the former argument, I do believe it also reflects some desperation on Xi's part.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Post-Cold War US Grand Strategy

The topic of grand strategy has become a cottage industry in US policy and academic circles the last 25 plus years. This shouldn’t be a surprise, actually.  

For almost five decades, the cold war provided considerable structure for US foreign policy. It spawned a grand strategy—containment of Soviet power and influence—that organized why, how, where and when the US exercised its soft and hard power globally. But once the cold war was over, the main foreign policy mission of the US had also ended. So while the US won the cold war on its terms, and was now the undisputed sole superpower and global leader, it had work to do: it had to rediscover itself in a brand new world. This fact of life triggered a widespread macro foreign policy debate about America’s future role in the world. Put simply, what kind of grand strategy should the US pursue in the coming years? 

In a sense, right from the beginning, the post-cold war grand strategy debate met a goldilocks dilemma: Is it better for the US to do too much or too little in the world? Or can the US strike just the right balance? So for instance, should the US attempt to take advantage of its new position in the world—perhaps by creating new institutions or exporting democracy? Or should it be picky about where and when it exercises its power abroad? Or maybe it should simply come back home and build a Fortress America, thereby insulating itself from the dangers and threats beyond its borders? In the end, vigorous internationalism won the day. But how we got there, and the specific contours of it, varied from president to president. Only with the arrival of Donald Trump have we found a full-throated questioning of the virtues of internationalism.

The 1990s were a period in which the US was finding its way in the world. The Clinton presidency placed international institutions and institution-building at the heart of US foreign policy, as NATO and EU expasion and the creation of the WTO were notable self-touted achievements. At the same time, however, Clinton muddled through much of the decade, reactively responding to brushfires in the Balkans and the Middle East, while regrettably doing little to nothing about a host of crises in Africa. In retrospect, given the gathering storm of Islamic terrorism that we now know festered on Clinton’s watch, his tenure reeks of fecklessness and incompetence on foreign policy matters. But even at the time, by the end of his presidency, conservatives viewed Clinton’s presidency as lost at sea morally and substantively. This perceived aimlessness created a sense of purpose for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush.

To correct the mistakes of Clinton, Bush entered office with a mission to lead the US in a new, well-defined direction. This didn’t take shape until 9/11. Prior to 9/11, Bush foreign embarked on a fuzzy-headed mission to harmonize US relations with Russia and China. After 9/11, Bush completely overhauled his foreign policy, turning toward a pro-democracy, nation building craze that led the US into a two-front war and occupation of two countries. What emerged from all this conflict and violence was what came be known as the Bush Doctrine, a series of policies and strategies that shaped and unified America's orientation toward the rest of the world.

At bottom, the Bush Doctrine outlined the necessity for the US to wage unilateral preventive foreign wars in the name of anti-terrorism and pro-democracy reform, and served as a comprehensive organizing force for US foreign policy. Either foreign nations were on board with the Bush Doctrine, willing to assist and work with the US, or they were against the US. Bush’s problem was that his grand strategy wasn’t the right one, for a number of reasons. His foreign policy led to two costly, disastrous wars—wars that hurt or killed thousands of Iraqis and Americans, divided America politically, wrecked America’s global standing, and abetted the rise of global rivals like Russia and China. Additionally, there were, and still are, scholars and intellectuals who see global terrorism as more of a policing issue than a strict foreign policy one. Moreover, while the dangers of terrorism to Americans are real, the probability of experiencing such an attack is extraordinary low. Americans are much more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike or by falling down in their bathtubs.

Discussion about US grand strategy remained a hot topic during the Obama years. After suffering through roughly seven years of a costly, expansionist grand strategy, hopes were high that Obama would offer a new foreign policy approach that scaled back US overseas commitments while also improving America’s image globally. Supporters of Obama wrote pieces spelling out what a potential Obama Doctrine might look like. But over time, those hopes were dashed, as Obama offered less a grand strategy than a general dictum for the US “not to do stupid stuff.” Obama’s risk averse foreign policy—aside from the catastrophic Libya intervention—bled into his handling of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Iran, among other cases. This relatively low-risk approach prevented the US from accruing massive costs in blood and treasure, in contrast to the Bush years, though it did feed the perception, in the US and beyond, that Obama was content with “leading from behind.” Which, in turn, arguably galvanized the avaricious ambitions of Moscow and Beijing to fill the power vacuums created by America’s reticence to involve itself in various global disputes and conflicts. Richard Haass used the term “reluctant sheriff” to describe the US during the Clinton presidency, though it probably applies much better to Obama’s America.

With the transition from Obama to Trump, the grand strategy debate has once again reared its head. Does Trump have a grand strategy? If not, what might a Trump grand strategy look like? Trump advocates claim that his America First platform is his administration’s foreign policy organizing principle. America First is fashioned as an anti-globalist program that is skeptical of trade deals, international institutions, and global elites. It defines the national interest very narrowly, as Trumpites prefer instead to erect barriers and walls to keep out bogeymen of various ethnic and national backgrounds. But on specific details, it's inchoate. The biggest problem is that America First doesn’t offer any guidelines as to how we can determine what’s in America’s best interests in each and every instance or event. America First is a foreign policy nugget—really, a slogan—in search of something larger, bigger to flesh it out and give it more meaning and substance.

One could argue that Trump’s National Security Strategy is his administration’s grand strategy. It’s supposed to be, but it’s not. It’s a document that has, in part, translated some of Trump’s tweets into foreign policy jargon and, in part, incorporated some of the contemporary thinking of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. This dual nature of the NSS makes for a jarring read, particularly the sections on Russia and China.  

A smart-aleck could argue that Trump’s personality quirks prevent him from thinking strategically or in a long-term manner. But there really is something to this. Frankly, my biggest concern is that Trump, whether on television or in the White House, is notorious for not liking scripts—which is somewhat akin to how a grand strategy functions for leaders and their governments—but desperately needs one at all times. He sees them as too confining, believing that he’s better—in terms style and substance—when he’s able to improvise and rely on his instincts. Unfortunately, as we have seen, a freewheeling Trump is one who is prone to exaggeration, lying, boasting, and making all sorts of wild statements and accusations seemingly without much concern about the consequences—to him, to the US, to the world. Yes, he’s a bit stiffer and looks uncomfortable, but Trump does perform significantly better when he’s prepared, when he’s giving remarks that have been ruminated over and vetted for accuracy, clarity and coherence—which by themselves aren’t the same as grand strategy, but they are by-products of what a well-oiled White House team and a grand strategy can offer. An organized, detailed grand strategy would keep Trump more focused and on point, polish off some of his personal rough spots, and deliver a more consistently effective US foreign policy. Alas, this something we probably won’t see—in part because of Trump’s personal preferences and in part because there are no signs his team deems a foreign policy doctrine as especially important.

Fortunately, Trump foreign policy hasn’t led to any major calamities yet. However, he has committed a host of unforced errors—including the decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, station a permanent force in northern Syria, engage in name calling with Kim Jong Un, and act deferentially to Russia and China—which could well haunt the US down the line. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017 Person of the Year: Kim Jong Un

                                                            KCNA, December 2017.

The last few years in global affairs have been dominated by Vladimir Putin. Since his reelection to the Russian presidency in 2012, Putin’s ambitions and policies have strongly impacted the globe in sorts of ways. Just consider the following: Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, its invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, and its meddling in various elections throughout the west, including in the US and France—all important events. Over the past decade, Russia, on many fronts, has been a force that other actors have to cope with and respond to, despite not being one of the two most powerful states in the world. Russia has punched above its weight, so to speak, in global influence and significance.

The idea of punching above one’s weight has remained a dominant theme in international relations in 2017. But it’s not Russia that has driven the lion’s share of world events this past year, it’s North Korea. And because of that, my nomination for world politics “Person of the Year” is Kim Jong Un, the portly young “Rocket Man” of Pyongyang.

To be clear, this isn’t an endorsement of North Korea’s behavior or wild statements and threats. Moreover, it’s not a vote of approval of how Kim governs and leads North Korea. Rather, it’s simply an observation that North Korea, under Kim’s guidance, has managed to set the tone and course of events in 2017. Let’s face it, North Korea has dominated news headlines in 2017. It has dominated the attention of world leaders. It has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity in the UN and East Asia. It’s even baited US President Donald Trump into a twitter spat. It has repeatedly flouted UN resolutions and broken international law. And just as importantly significantly, North Korea has threatened and frightened an increasing number of people worldwide.

The source of all this sturm und drang is Kim Jong Un’s unrelenting drive to advance his nation’s missile and nuclear capabilities. This quest could be a function of offensive motives, such as the desire to unify the Korean Peninsula on his terms. It could well be an effort to test Trump, to see if he’s a paper tiger. It might also be a product of defensive factors, such as worries of being abandoned and left vulnerable by China and longstanding fears of an American-led invasion. Plus, domestic politics is also probably playing a part here. Keeping the nation safe—something the Kim dynasty has promised that only it can do—buttresses Kim’s legitimacy.

Regardless, what we do know is that Kim’s military program has sped into overdrive this year. In September, North Korea is widely believed, based on geological data, to have tested a two-stage hydrogen bomb, a more sophisticated and destructive nuclear test than it had previously tested. As The Washington Post points out, “original estimates had put its yield in the 100-kiloton range, but updated seismic data analyzed by experts…put it closer to a whopping 250 kilotons, or nearly 17 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.” Just as alarmingly, the explosive device is believed to be small enough to fit inside a rocket. In other words, North Korea has ostensibly perfected the art of miniaturization and weaponization.

Meantime, North Korea has also conducted twenty-three tests on six different types of missiles in 2017. North Korea’s latest missile test, which displayed a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15, has triggered further global concern, especially in Washington. The Hwasong-15, launched on November 29th, flew for roughly 54 minutes at almost 2800 feet in altitude, giving it a likely range of over 8000 miles, if launched at a normal trajectory—all of those figures, but most significantly altitude and range, exceed North Korea’s previous tests this calendar year. Pyongyang’s July 29 “game changer” test was tabbed by experts as evidence that North Korea could hit America’s Midwest. The late November test puts all of the US in range, including East Coast hubs like New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Miami. Even Cuba is now within range of a North Korea rocket—either a conventional one or a nuclear-tipped one.

Put simply, the North Korea problem is a gathering storm, one that’s becoming more dangerous and complicated by the day, and one that’s come to a head in 2017. North Korea’s growing and advancing nuclear and conventional weapons arsenal is problematic on its own terms, as it gives Pyongyang greater abilities to harass, threaten, and strike US and allied interests. But we’re also now seeing harrowing off-shoot problems, like the prospect of first-strike preventive attacks, accidental launches, and war via miscalculation/misinformation, picking up steam. Furthermore, 2017 is the year that the North Korean puzzle has turned from a denuclearization problem to a deterrence game. And America’s refusal to treat the problem as such inevitably means that Kim gains more time in the global spotlight going forward.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Assessing Trump's Trip to Asia

                                                                           Photo: CNN

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump embarked on a five-nation trip across Asia, a journey that spanned nearly two weeks--his longest trip abroad since becoming president. As we've come to expect by now, his "excellent adventure" was a mixed bag of good and bad elements.

First, the good stuff. Because of the narrative of low expectations that continually surround Trump and his foreign policy, this trip could be seen as at least a partial success, even though there wasn't a breakthrough in policies or ideas. To begin, Trump seemed to be able to build rapport with the leaders of the countries he visited. He hit it off with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with the latter flattering him with “Donald & Shinzo” baseball caps. In Seoul, Trump reiterated America's commitment to South Korea. In China, Trump seemed to build a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, whom he called “a very special man.” Trump even showed Xi a video of his granddaughter speaking Chinese and singing for “Grandpa Xi.” Trump also said the right words in Vietnam, assuring his host about America's commitment in the South China Sea. And finally, in the Philippines, President Duterte serenaded Trump, while Trump exclaimed that he had “a great relationship” with Duterte.

In short, Trump was on his best behavior, courting no controversy while building rapport with the leaders he needs to work with. Unfortunately, Trump appears to think that if he has good personal relations with foreign leaders, like Xi, Abe, Duterte, and Moon, then the US automatically and by definition has good, harmonious ties with these foreign nations and that any divergent national interests at stake thereby wash away. But that's a very dubious belief.

For instance, no matter how well Trump was feted by Xi, the US and China still are loggerheads over a number of issues--most notably, over which great power, the US or China, will dominate in Asia now and in the future. Another problem with this trip is that Trump seemed to sacrifice the core ideals long embedded in the US national interest, most notably the issues of democracy, liberalism, and human rights. Trump touched very little on human rights in his visits with Xi and Duterte, and in Vietnam, Trump ignored the political dissidents. 

Another glaring problem was Trump was played by his hosts, especially China. So as to woo The Donald, China reportedly told Trump that he was given a "state-plus" visit, replete with a lavish dinner, state ceremonies, and screaming kids lined up along the streets to cheer on Trump's movements around China. In response, Trump was butter in Beijing's hands. All of the economic criticisms he's lobbed at China over the years--as a civilian, as a political candidate, and as president--on issues like currency valuation, US-China trade deals, and the like fell by the wayside. Instead, Trump bizarrely blamed past US administrations for China getting the upper hand in the relationship and congratulated Beijing for being wily and clever. It's one thing to pursue good relations with Beijing, it's quite another to act obsequiously toward China. At this point, it's certainly plausible that China now believes it can roll over and sweet talk Trump, even on issues of American national interest. 

At the same time, however, it is possible that Trump's personal approach to foreign policy might yield some benefits. For instance, de-emphasizing tensions with China, rather adopting a confrontational approach to Beijing, in both public and private settings, can be good thing. It's establishes some stability in Sino-US ties, which can reverberates throughout the broader Asia. And just as importantly, having good ties with China is lays the foundation for US and China to jointly work on some of the world's toughest issues, like North Korea, global economic growth, China's expansionism in the South China Sea, and so on. 

Another interesting part of Trump's trip is that he revived the so-called quad, a four-country dialogue involving the US, Japan, India, and Australia. The quad, along with the use of the term "Indo-Pacific," rather than Asia, signals an effort by Team Trump to include India in its thinking and policymaking on Asia. Which is a good and important development. India is the world's largest democracy, a latent economic powerhouse under Prime Minister Modi, and potential aspirant for regional hegemony down the line. In terms of US national interests, it's far better to have India fully integrated into the existing regional order, working and playing well with Washington's allies, and firmly on America's side. 

Lastly, it seems like quite a bit of Asia is starting to move on from the US, already preparing for a post-America Asia, and Team Trump either doesn't see it or isn't particularly bothered by it. The 11 remaining members of the TPP have already reached consensus on several major core issues that could well pave the way for a revised pact (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) minus the US now that Trump withdrew America from the TPP back in January. Furthermore, it's important to note that observers of the recent major gatherings in Asia have commented on the difference in how Xi and Trump have been received by audiences: Xi has been cheered, Trump not so much. Trump's America First platform, with its emphasis on bilateral trade deals and protectionism, doesn't resonate in Asia. These things are viewed as relics of the past, elements of a retrograde economic policy. Asia is becoming increasingly open and integrated economically, and this is the direction Asian nations, on balance, want to go. Trump is treading down a different path, one with not so many followers, and it risks transforming America First into America Alone. 

Overall, while Trump might find it worthwhile to build good rapport with leaders of the countries in East and Southeast Asia, this might not help him or the US very much absent a coherent US foreign policy strategy that takes into account the long-term interests of the US, rather than the en vogue knee-jerk populist policies that could well make China into a de-facto leader across Asia.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Sustainability of Us: An Interview

Below is an interview I’ve conducted over the last few weeks with the writer/poet Amalie Flynn. Our readers/followers might remember Ms. Flynn, as we’ve previously highlighted Amalie and her work on this blog. For those who might not remember, Amalie is the author of several blogs and the poetic-memoir Wife and War, which was released in 2013. We at CWCP have been fans of her work for years. And now, Amalie is back with a new project called The Sustainability of Us. Ms. Flynn describes this project as “eco-memoir – made of poems. It is about one family – mine. And wider still. Across our bodies and bodies of land. Because it is about all of us – and the question – the question of what is sustainable.” In the following interview, I ask Amalie about the motives and themes that underpin her new project, as well as the role that the current political landscape in the US is playing in her work.

Brad Nelson: First, I'd like to start with a basic question. What motivated you to start your new project The Sustainability of Us?

Amalie Flynn: A convergence of desires led me to The Sustainability of Us.

My desire to write about my child, who has a disability, who has apraxia, and who does not have language, the full power to speak. I want to write about him and express his experience, empower it in a way he cannot, by speaking it into being.

My desire to write about the environment, the physical land, which surrounds all of us, and holds us in this space. I want to write about the connection between each of us and the land, how it writes the story of our lives, and we write its story, weaving in and out of each other’s narratives, and how there is always consequence. I want to write about the specific connection between my son and the land, in terms of language and rights, the rights of the environment and the rights of my son, rights that can be cultivated and cared for by the rest of us, but are often desecrated and dismantled, torn down and ripped away.

And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation. I want to write in search of the ways we are interdependent, the ways we can be connected, all of us, to the government, to one another, to the land. I want to write about how we interact, together, in this, our giant ecosystem of being. I want to write about the rights and responsibilities we have, our own rights and the responsibilities we have, to protect the rights of others and of the land, what rights we choose to protect and what rights we choose to risk, what we choose to conserve and what we choose to endanger, and the sustainability of it, the sustainability of us.

BN: Was it easy to decide to write publicly about your son's experiences? Or did you have any trepidation about that?

BN: Another thought occurred to me. Your comment about the interdependence and interconnectivity among people, the government, and the land is quite fascinating. I'm curious about what has inspired and influenced your thinking about the world in these terms. To my ears, it sounds very Buddhist--whether intentional or not.

AF: I’ve written about both of my children before. In my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s disability in poems like Horn, Fill, Matter, Locate, and Words. But in my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s experience alongside war. This project – The Sustainability of Us – is different. Because my son’s experience is the focus. And because – in these poems, his experience is paired with the environment. The environment is dynamic in a different way than war. War is destructive while the environment is constructive, organic, and cyclic. Writing about my son’s disability paired with the environment is my effort to convey his experience of being, almost ecologically, in terms of his autonomy and his interrelationship with others – in a world where he may seem not to fit in but a world that is undoubtedly his. You asked me if it is hard to write about my son. And, yes, it is hard. Because it is raw and vulnerable and, all at once, mine and not mine. But it is harder not to write about him. Not to give voice to his story, to my story with him, to our family’s story. It is a story of struggle and strength and a constancy of tenuous beauty, like a lotus through mud.

AF: The idea that we are all connected is a repeating theme in my writing, a core belief, and an interest, really, in what happens when we forget, forget we are connected, disconnect, and, then, remember again. Often we forget that we are part of the natural environment, this ecosystem of living and nonliving species, or that we are dependent on other species and they are dependent on us. We forget that we are living in a community with these species, with blades of Blue Fescue grass, a Rufa Red Knot, algae in bloom. And this forgetting happens in our human relationships too. We forget that we are connected to other humans, interrelated, and, in many ways, interdependent. So, in these poems, I am laying, like gauze, the idea of an ecosystem over our interactions, our interactions with the environment, with each other, and with our government, so that I can see and describe what bleeds through, what happens when we forget we are connected and what happens when we remember our connections again. I am drawn to the land in my writing because I think it provides a perspective and a tension to the human experience – and because I think the land possesses intrinsic value and is important.  This philosophy comes from my scholarship – my doctoral work was an eco-anthropological analysis of the American suburban front lawn. It comes from Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, the warnings of Rachel Carson, and my own sense of environmental ethics. It comes from my obsession with space and place, what we build and what we do not, what fills and what leaves holes or a void. It comes from my belief in the narrative and story and shape of land. And it comes from my own sense of self, my deep connection to land. Being in nature is almost ritualistic for me. I do it every day. And it is one of the ways I feel most myself, most human, when I find myself amongst the land, because I remember myself again in a contrast to and in a connection with that land.

BN: I'd like to swing back to a comment you made earlier in our conversation. You said, "And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation." I'd like to tease out this sentence a bit. In particular, I'm curious about the impact of the current political environment on your work. How do you see it? And is the impact different from, say, the Obama years?

AF: Currently, America is fiercely divided. The current administration operates by way of division, seems to empower itself by dividing us, and is deeply mired in a scandal that divides us further still. And, yet, at the heart of this division is the reality that politics are personal. Politics are personal because politics affect people, real human beings with lives that are delicate and deserving of certain protections from their government. For me, what marks this administration as so different from the last administration, beyond all the fanfare and cacophony of scandal, is the very real reversal of rights, the moving backwards.

The policies and pursuits of this administration threaten the rights of many Americans – the rights of minorities, women, refugees, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, those who practice Islam, Judaism, or no religion at all, the rights of the environment, and, yes, the rights of those who live with disabilities – like my child.

Through aggressive deregulation of environmental protections, this administration has relegated the environment to the role of raw resource – a material to be used by humans, exploited, disregarded, and thrown away. There is a connection here – with the alarming way this administration has threatened the rights of people with disabilities. This administration has not proven to be an advocate for disability rights. Instead, there is an effort to strip health care coverage away from people with disabilities. There is a rolling back of ADA and regulations requiring businesses to be accessible. There is the proposal that IDEA be no longer federally mandated but left to states to decide whether to enforce it or not. There is the prospect that restructuring the public school system through school choice and voucher programs will re-segregate schools and deny children with disabilities the right to free and equal education. There is the actual physical erasure of the page on the White House website that was formerly dedicated to disability rights.

So, I see the environment and people with disabilities as connected. They are connected because the rights of each are threatened by this administration. Viewed from this perspective, my son and the environment are even more closely connected. Because they are both voiceless. They are both without a voice, at least in a traditional sense.

For me, the difference between this administration and the last administration is a backwards movement, the reversal of rights, the danger and darkness of a retrograde. And I am focused on this difference poetically – what this difference means for the environment, my child, all of us, not just politically, but personally. Because the America I love is forward moving. It is constantly trying to move forward. In ways that include everyone.

That we now live in an America that is moving backwards is devastating and will have very real and harmful repercussions, for the environment, in the personal lives of people, and for us all as a public society. So, it is this difference and this devastation that I am writing about. It is the disregard for a child. It is a river forced dry.

BN: I detect a sense of urgency in your assessment of the Trump era: the seemingly dire state of US politics, the growing intractable divisions within America, the declining state of our environment, and so on. It seems clear that your new project is a personal visceral reaction to all of that. At the same time, I suspect that you see—and maybe even hope—your poetic-blog goes beyond that, beyond the personal to something larger and bigger. Am I right?

AF: The degradation of the environment, the diminishment of certain groups of people, such as people with disabilities, the divisions between us – these realities precede our current administration and have always existed in America – as has my disquiet about them. Policies of the current administration that target the environment and people with disabilities only bring into focus a subjugation that is always there, that has always been there, in America. So, while this project speaks to the danger of the current administration’s mistreatment of the environment and of people with disabilities, it is speaking to something larger, an America where domination and degradation is woven into so many of our interactions, with each other, with our government, and with the land. In these poems, I seek to say something illimitable – about the environment and about us – about the dichotomy at the heart of this existence – resilience and self-sustainment, fragility and vulnerability. Ultimately, these poems are about humanity, how we are all connected, and the deep schisms and voids that form when we deny these connections or sever them. In each poem, there is the optimism of connection, reconnection. And the reality that sometimes – sometimes it is too late.

Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and three blogs: WIFE AND WAR, SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH, and THE SUSTAINABILITY OF US. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.